‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ – James Cameron Wows Us Yet Again

It is surreal that “Avatar: The Way of Water” has finally arrived in movie theaters after having its release delayed so many times. The original “Avatar” came out in 2009, and since then we have been promised a number of sequels which never quite made it to the silver screen regardless of what James Cameron promised us. This got to be aggravating for everyone including myself as I kept rolling my eyes whenever Cameron said the sequels would be coming out soon. Like many, I wanted to just yell out, “release them already!” But while so much has happened between 2009 and 2022, it suddenly feels like it was just yesterday when we first visited Pandora and all those blue people, and I was reminded about how wowed I was by everything Cameron put on display.

Well, I can certainly see why Cameron kept us waiting for years and years as he wanted to break new cinematic ground, and he has done so with again with this long awaited sequel. While “Avatar: The Way of Water” may not have the most complex of stories or characters, and his films rarely do, he succeeds in giving us one hell of a cinematic experience as he spends a lot of the 192 minutes wowing us in ways I thought he was no longer capable of. Like “Top Gun: Maverick,” I cannot wait to see it again.

Over a decade has passed since the Na’vi repelled the human invasion of Pandora, and Jake Sully is now the leader of the Omaticaya tribe. He and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) are now parents to four children; two adventurous sons and two girls who are so fascinated by the world and creatures constantly surrounding them. But like all happily ever after endings, this fairy tale eventually comes crashing down in a nightmarish fashion.

The Resources Development Administration (RDA) has now returned to Pandora, but instead of obtaining that brilliantly named mineral called unobtanium, they are this time intent on inhabiting the planet as Earth is now in its death throes because there were never enough people there who realized climate change was real. And in this futuristic time Cameron has thrust us into, manifest destiny has taken humanity from conquering planets to taking over galaxies because, you know, heaven forbid adults get given the same kind of boundaries children are and eventually benefit from. Once again, humans are out to, as George Carlin once said, free the people and whip a little industry on them.

Fearing the worst, Jake and Neytiri flee the Omaticaya tribe along with their children and take refuge with the Metkayina reef people in hopes they will never be found by the RDA. The family, however, has trouble fitting in as they are tree people while Metkayinas are water people. This leads to a lot of awkward situations between everyone as the kids hate being uprooted and are not sure how to act around those who know the water more than what is above it.

It is when “Avatar: The Way of Water” goes into the waters of Pandora that it really takes off. The underwater footage is nothing short of amazing as we are taken through the many depths of the planet and are introduced to various aquatic creatures who must be seen to be believed. A good portion of the footage was shot in a higher frame rate (HFR) which gives the visuals a clarity which makes them look even more astonishing than they already are. I have not always been a big fan of HFR as it can make things look a little too crystal clear, and Cameron knew not shoot the whole movie in this format as the audience could have been easily alienated, but he makes HFR work to not just his advantage, but the audience’s as well.

Now much has been said about this sequel’s making and of how the actors spent many minutes underwater. As the Na’vi children are made to experience the underwater realm, “The Way of Water” could almost be seen as an advertisement for free-diving. Spend just a minute or two in the shallows or the depths is not enough to take in the last frontier left to explore on Earth or any other planet, but we are also reminded of the dangers of staying underwater for too long, and Cameron knows we know this, so he squeezes ever last ounce of tension to make this clear.

Cameron also gets to deal with themes which have been prevalent throughout his movies and documentaries to where I am quickly reminded of a line from “Aliens” uttered by Sigourney Weaver where she pointed out the difference between humans and certain extraterrestrials:

“You know, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other for a goddamn percentage.”

 Indeed, we are given plenty of proof here of how marine life can be far more intelligent than humanity, and it makes the humans decimation of such sea creatures in scenes which reminded me of similar ones in “Jaws” even more painful. Clearly, these fish hunters never took the time to watch “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” at least once, and the fluid they remove from these creatures is treated as being even more profitable than unobtanium. All I can say about this fluid is that it’s the kind which would just fly off the shelves in Beverly Hills. I mean, heaven forbid anyone allows themselves to age gracefully, you know?

The inhabitants of Pandora also get to talk to whales in this movie, something which I am sure would make Doctor Doolittle infinitely envious. Now on paper this may have looked incredibly silly, but I never found myself laughing at those scenes where the characters could talk to the animals. That, and maybe I just want to believe deep down that we can do this for real someday if we haven’t already.

As complex as the visual effects are, the same cannot be said about the movie’s story or screenplay. Even with several other credited writers, nothing here sounds like it could have come out of a David Mamet play. Then again, Cameron has not always been known for giving such complexities when it comes to his screenplays. What you see is what you get, and it is up to the actors to bring to life even if the dialogue is not particularly great.

Speaking of the actors, their performances are mostly excellent, and the best ones come from those who will not simply let the effects teams do all the work for them. This is especially the case with Zoe Saldana who puts every single ounce of her energy into Neytiri to where the motion capture, visual effects and her performance all combine to create one big passionate fireball of energy. The same goes for Kate Winslet, reuniting with Cameron for the first time since “Titanic,” who portrays the pregnant Metkayina free diver Ronal with a passion to where it took me forever to realize it was the Oscar winning actress of “The Reader” who was playing this character.

I also have to say how envious I was of Sigourney Weaver here. Not only does she reprise her role of Dr. Grace Augustine, but she also portrays the daughter of her Na’vi avatar, Kiri. Weaver portrays Kiri with all the innocence a child could have as she comes into contact with things she is ever so quick to learn from and use to her advantage.

But my favorite performance of all comes from Stephen Lang who returns as the nefarious Colonel Miles Quaritch, albeit in Na’vi form as he died in the last movie. With his mind implanted in this avatar with memories of his past life, Miles has not changed one bit as he seeks bloody revenge on Jake Sully for what he sees as betraying his own kind. But thanks to Lang, he gives us an antagonist who is never one-dimensional as his goals are led by a patriotic duty which, while misguided, fuels his heart in ways nothing else can. Still, he lets us see another dimension hiding within Miles as he comes to meet the son he left behind on Pandora, Spider (Jack Champion), who has long since become accustomed to the environment he has been living in.

Everything in “Avatar: The Way of Water” leads to an adrenaline-fueled climax which echoes the most intense moments from one of Cameron’s more underrated works, “The Abyss,” as Jake and company are forced to literally keep their heads above water as they fight off those who exploit their planet for their own greedy purposes. When it comes to Cameron, he never lets us down when it comes to infinitely exciting third acts.

No, this is not a perfect movie, and it does not surprise how many detractors out there are quick to point this out. But still, Cameron still knows how to create a cinematic spectacle which is best experienced at a theater near you. Furthermore, no other filmmaker out there can make 3D seem like much more than a mere gimmick than he can. Regardless of how annoying it was to wait this long for an “Avatar” sequel, I think it was worth the wait. But more importantly, I am relieved we will not have to wait all that long for the next installment, and I cannot wait to see where these characters will go next.

Just remember this quote when you come out of “Avatar; The Way of Water:”

“They say the sea is cold, but the sea contains the hottest blood of all.”

That quote is from “Whales Weep Not” by D.H. Lawrence. And yes, I got that quote from a pivotal scene in “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.”

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’47 Meters Down’ Thrills You Just When You Thought it was Safe to Go Back into the Water

47 Meters Down movie poster

From its poster, “47 Meters Down” looks like one of those Syfy flicks like “Sharknado” or “Lavalantula” which are enjoyable for being infinitely silly and having pathetic CGI effects. Or perhaps it would be like one of those knockoff movies from The Asylum, a production company shameless in capitalizing on blockbuster films by using titles and screenplays similar to them (“Snakes on a Train” or “Transmorphers” anyone?). Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to make something similar to the 2016 sleeper hit “The Shallows” which stared Blake Lively as a surfer who has to use her wits in order to keep from being eaten by a great white shark. Either way, I came into this movie figuring it would be one you should not take the least bit seriously and enjoy for all the wrong reasons.

But to my surprise, “47 Meters Down” is a very effective thriller which is lean in its execution, and its main intent is to take you on a pulse pounding ride. In many ways, it is like Renny Harlin’s “Deep Blue Sea” which, while by no means an artistic triumph, played around with the clichés we remember most from shark movies like “Jaws,” and it employs them to where we think we know what to expect, but our expectations are thrown for a loop. What results is a motion picture which knows exactly what it needs to do and how to do it.

Mandy Moore and Clair Holt star as Lisa and Kate, sisters who, as the movie starts, are on vacation in Mexico. One night they run into some local guys who invite them to go cage diving for sharks. Just like Richard Dreyfuss in “Jaws,” these two women will be lowered into the ocean in a cage where they will get to see those sharp-toothed creatures up close without being eaten. But of course, we all know things will not go as planned as our two leads and the characters around them make one stupid mistake after another. Then again, if they didn’t make those mistakes, there would be no movie.

The clichés abound in “47 Meters Down” as the boat the ladies will be traveling on looks far too rusty to sail anywhere safely. You have Matthew Modine on board as the captain of the ship, Taylor, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of Quint from “Jaws.” There’s also the fact that these ladies have never scuba-dived before, and you know this is just asking to invite disaster. We have the air gauges which act as the plot’s ticking time bomb as the ladies threaten to run out of air sooner than they think, they cut themselves to where blood flows from their bodies, thus inviting any shark in the vicinity to drop by and feast on human flesh, and there’s always the one guy who is there to save everybody’s ass, but we all know how long he will last (or do we?).

Lisa also exhibits tremendous anxiety about doing this even as Kate assures her this will be the best time the two of them have ever had (it won’t). Hearing this conversation between them immediately reminded me of a number of “Star Wars” characters saying this infamous line from one movie to the next: “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” Another unforgettable piece of dialogue which crossed my mind was Jon Voight’s line from “Deliverance” when he said to Burt Reynolds, “Let’s go back to town and play golf.” This was good advice which was left unheeded, and it makes perfect sense how Lisa’s common sense could be overturned by Kate’s need for adventure.

As you can imagine, everything goes terribly wrong as the boat winch breaks, and the women plummet down 47 meters to the seafloor. Director Johannes Roberts wisely keeps the majority of the action underwater as Lisa and Kate struggle to stay calm and not use up their dwindling supply of air. He puts us right in their shoes as, like them, we are left to wonder what the crew members in the boat are doing to bring them back to the surface or if they are doing anything at all. Roberts is also aided strongly by a pulse-pounding film score from Tomandandy whose work on “Killing Zoe” and “The Hills Have Eyes” remake rank among my favorites. Their music heightens an already intense motion picture to something which will fry your nerves and leave you on the edge of your seat even as we are forced to endure some unintentionally hilarious moments.

Granted, you can’t always expect David Mamet or Aaron Sorkin to be underwater with you when words fail you. When Moore cries out about how the shark almost got me, the audience I was with couldn’t help but laugh as it seems like such a silly thing to say. But then again, what would really say if we were stuck in the same predicament? I doubt we would be uttering a monologue out of Eugene O’Neill’s “A Long Day’s Journey into Night.” Of course, it always helps to have John Milius around when you need him.

Moore and Holt do strong work in creating a bond between and work hard to create characters who, while not having too much in the way of depth, quickly realize they need one another to survive this ordeal. Seeing one of them take off their mask and remove their oxygen tank just to get through the bars of the cage is enough to make one shiver, and this is accomplished without the use of special effects. The actresses are also aided by actor Matthew Modine who plays the Captain of the boat, Taylor. For the most part, we hear his voice more than we see him, but he gives strong support as he encourages his guests, people he never should have put in any danger, a reason to stay calm. In addition, he also reminds the ladies and the audience that the bends is not just the title of a Radiohead album.

Roberts previously directed “The Other Side of the Door,” a supernatural horror thriller which started off well, but later got bogged down in clichés it would have been smarter to avoid. “47 Meters Down,” however, is all about clichés, and just as Harlin did with “Deep Blue Sea,” he manages to manipulate those clichés to where we think we know what to expect, and then we are totally caught off guard. Just watch the scene where the actresses are playing around with an underwater camera, and you will understand what I mean.

Yes, the sharks are CGI, but they are still frightening antagonists in this movie. After a while, the terror comes from a combination of what we think is going on above the water as well as what we cannot see. The water is made to look especially murky to where we can’t see much of what is in front of us, and this leads to an especially scary moment when a character swims out to a certain point, and then suddenly can’t remember the direction in which she came.

Look, “47 Meters Down” is not Oscar material, but it never pretends to be either. While it may not reach the heights of “Jaws” or the unbearable intensity of “Open Water,” it is a taut thriller which will allow the audience a nice diversion for a couple of hours. Roberts and his cast understand exactly what this movie aims to be, and they deliver in a way which will get your adrenaline pumping. You can laugh all you want at the foolishness of the characters, but in this instance their foolishness is necessary for this movie to work at all.

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